The novel coronavirus pandemic has put new spins and strains on workplaces, schools and families, leading to new perspectives on work and life. One company decided it was time to take another look at its family leave policy.
A perfect time, executives at New Zealand-based accounting software company Xero decided, to enhance the company’s already generous family leave policy with additional time and more inclusive language.
“Overall, there was a lot of excitement and a bit of surprise that we launched it during a pandemic,” said Ben Richmond, Xero’s U.S. country manager, who is based in Colorado. “When you think of what’s going on, people have friends and family at other companies facing layoffs and pay cuts. We've taken this people-first principle.
“This is a time when the world needs leadership on these types of topics,” Richmond continued. “It is important in these crazy times.”
Xero started by throwing out the conventional terms of maternity and paternity leave, calling it family leave and opening it up to any caregivers and their partners. The family support policies are in line with the company’s focus on inclusion and diversity, said Richmond.
“We want to be an inclusive work environment and it’s really about work-life- integration now,” he continued. “We have people who work very hard, but we want to help them on their family journey as well. There are many different families in today's world and this is designed to support equality. We want people to do the best work of their lives, and that’s hard to do if they are not feeling engaged.” The company’s efforts won it a spot in the 2020 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index.
The revised policy, effective October 1, allows all primary caregivers parental leave payments that are equivalent to 26 weeks, double the previous amount of 13 weeks. If an employee’s partner gives birth to a child or adopts a child, the employee is entitled to six weeks partner leave, which can be taken in two chunks. For employees who receive government parental leave payments that are a percentage of their salaries, such as in Canada, Xero supplements the amount so that employees are still receiving their full weekly earnings.
To help employees stay in the loop during their leave, they can return to work for up to 10 “keeping in touch days,” at their usual salary. Employees returning to work at the end of their leave have the option of easing back into office life during the first two months, by working fewer days or hours or working from home. Employees also receive four weeks vacation.
“This policy is much more future-proofed,” Richmond explained. “We have a lot of same-sex parents and often it can be fathers who are taking on the primary role of caregiving.”
The timing of the policy also works well for Richmond; he and his husband have started planning to have a child and hope to be parents by October 2021. “My husband and I are both very ambitious people,” he said. “Xero is such a cool place to work, but at the same time I really want to be present when we have a young one—this will enable both of us to do it properly. The key thing for us is the flexibility. I want to be part of the [parenthood] journey and this way we can really do both things justice. We can be there for our child and keep growing a career.”
Xero’s policies also are expected to give it an edge in recruiting and retention. The pandemic has accelerated technology trends, making the software market more competitive. “We see promoting these diversity and inclusion parental support policies as super valuable because it shows our employees can thrive-we’ve seen first-hand how it works in the workplace,” Richmond noted. “At the same time, our values have shifted around what is important to us.”
The pandemic and resulting quarantines have highlighted the disparities and shortcomings in family leave policies - when they even exist - in the U.S. While most other countries have national maternity or paternity leave, America has a hodge-podge of programs, offered by employers, states or municipalities. As of 2019, only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York have paid family leave; Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, Oregon and the District of Columbia have adopted family leave policies but have not yet implemented them. The only national leave program is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees unpaid time off for illness or to care for family members.
According to new research from ING, a quarter of parents feel the pandemic has made supervisors more understanding about parental responsibilities, but more than half say the hardest challenge for partners has been managing work and family responsibilities.
As a native New Zealander who has lived in Colorado for four years, Richmond has experienced the different perspectives toward leave and seen evidence that American workers' fears of being away is counterproductive. “The data does not prove out the view in the U.S. that taking time off impacts businesses’ ability to achieve their goals,” Richmond said. “We have proof points in our business, because we have operations in other countries where these types of leave policies are more common. The output of people is not affected negatively; it’s greater.”
The productivity of employees in Xero offices in the U.S. has improved since more leave time was added. “In the U.S., it is quite unusual to take time off work,” Richmond continued. “In the southern hemisphere, people take two or three weeks off at a time; here people take a week off once a year. When you leave for just a week, the work just accumulates. If someone is gone for two or three weeks, other people pick up the work. Companies have to invest more time in putting systems and processes in place so people can take longer breaks and develop tighter, more engaged teams so they are not so dependent on one person.”
The old adage that the person who puts in the most hours is the most productive is just that: old. “Working crazy hours shouldn’t be the only way you can grow and get ahead in your career,” according to Richmond. “People who are refreshed will find ways to work faster. They are operating at a better level. It has been proven by enough companies that they can do better things for shareholders if people [employees] are in a better state of mind.”
Xero expects to continue to be lead in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Executives at other companies considering expanding their leave policies should look back on the experiences of employees who had to juggle a family issue and work with limited leave and how they could have helped more, advised Richmond. “Reflect on who could do this better and think beyond parental leave to other types of leave they can offer. Challenge the status quo and reflect on your own experiences and do research in your own space.“
Image credit: Omar Lopez/Unsplash
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.